China says it has sent its “monsters” to intimidate Vietnam and Indonesia into backing down over a joint gas project in the South China Sea. But at least one monster appears reluctant to come out from under the bed.
China’s enormous 12,000-ton Coast Guard patrol ship CCG 5901 has been attracting attention since it first appeared in the disputed area late last month.
That’s the point.
Indonesia and Vietnam have negotiated away their border disagreements to enable a new joint gas production project. It only took 12 years, but the Southeast Asian neighbours undertook the process to end the standoff and avoid coming to blows.
“So this development might have come across as rather disconcerting to Beijing, which has counted on intra-Asean divisions and fissures to prevent the emergence of a united front,” says Singapore-based international analyst Colin Koh.
But the United States is equally keen to be seen to be supporting such an example of international arbitration.
The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and its escorting battlegroup of destroyers entered the South China Sea last week. The US Navy says it is carrying out “routine operations in the Indo-Pacific”.
Chinese Communist Party (CCP) controlled media was quick to leap on the event. The Global Times declared on January 15 that the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s second aircraft carrier, the 50,000-ton Shandong, had held “confrontational drills” as the US carrier entered the South China Sea.
The problem is that commercially available satellite imagery appears to show the carrier in port at the time this standoff was supposed to occur.
Ships, lies and satellite photographs
“Several different types of warships and dozens of warplanes, the Shandong aircraft carrier group conducted realistic combat-oriented confrontational exercises in the South China Sea,” the PLA Navy said in a statement on Saturday.
The report emphasised this took place “at a time when a US carrier strike group had entered the region”.
The USS Nimitz crossed through the Philippines and into the South China Sea on January 12.
The PLAN Shandong was photographed returning to the harbour on December 30 after being at sea for several weeks of training exercises.
If it did put to sea, it would have to have been a quick excursion close to the Chinese coast for it to have returned in time for the next satellite pass on January 8 and again on January 15.
But China’s keen to promote its pride in its first home-built aircraft carrier. The Shandong is a reverse-engineered version of the PLAN Liaoning – a Soviet-era aircraft carrier bought from Ukraine as a floating hotel in the late 1990s. It was instead renovated into a fully functional warship.
The Shandong is powered by conventional engines and uses a ski ramp to help get its J-15 strike fighters into the air. It was commissioned in December 2019 and has since surprised analysts with its rapid achievement of operational status.
The China Daily quoted military affairs observer Wu Peixi as saying the Shandong and its escorts had “become ready for long-distance, large-scale operations”.
“We can see that the Shandong battle group has a lot of experience and know-how on complex manoeuvres. And I am sure Chinese carrier groups will sail farther soon to do their training.”
Meanwhile, China’s largest supposedly civilian law enforcement ship (crewed and commanded by the PLAN) is posturing in waters between Indonesia and Vietnam.
The ‘monster’ unleashed
The Zhaotou-class patrol cutter does not appear to have a name beyond its official designation – CCG 5901. But it’s one of a series of its type to enter the Chinese Coast Guard service since 2015.
International maritime analysts have dubbed the ships “monsters” because of their excessive size for a police vessel.
The 165m longship is also unusually heavily armed. It has 76mm rapid-fire cannons, two 30mm cannons, two machine guns, and a landing pad and hangar capable of operating the navy’s largest helicopters. It also carries a detachment of armed police and two uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs).
But size is its primary weapon.
“Unlike actual surface naval combat, in hostile encounters between coast guards, the size of the ship plays a large role, particularly in the South China Sea, which has seen numerous instances of ‘ramming contests’ with two vessels often engaging in games of chicken trying to scare the other vessel off,” International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) analyst Franz-Stefan Gady wrote in 2017.
Indonesia fears that is the purpose behind its presence off the Natuna Islands.
“The Chinese vessel has not conducted any suspicious activities,” Indonesian Navy chief Laksamana Muhammad Ali said. “However, we need to monitor it as it has been in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone [EEZ] for some time.”
CCG 5901 has been tracked in the Tuna Bloc gas field region since December 30. Earlier this month, Vietnam and Indonesia reached a $4 billion joint production agreement for the site.
“[This is] definitely a sign of China’s growing assertiveness, which should also be seen in the broader domestic context of the Chinese leadership’s growing sense of insecurity,” Koh told the South China Morning Post.
Indonesia forced to take sides
While the Tuna Bloc gas field occupies an overlap between the EEZs of both Indonesia and Vietnam, it also falls on the edge of Beijing’s arbitrarily declared “Nine Dash Line” that embraces the entire South China Sea right up to the coasts of neighbouring nations.
Tensions have been escalating in the region since 2015.
In the most recent incident, in September, a Chinese Coast Guard patrol boat entered Indonesian waters around the Natuna Islands and allegedly intimidated Indonesian fishermen. Despite public outcry, Jakarta did not make a formal diplomatic protest to Beijing.
“(These) manoeuvres are certainly not in line with the spirit of anti-hegemony and the non-arbitrary use of force emphasised by Xi,” argues Indonesian international affairs analyst Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat.
“Even though China’s claim to a part of the waters known as the North Natuna Sea does not have a strong legal basis under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Indonesia still has to be vigilant against attempts to enforce such claims.”
The gap between Chairman Xi’s words and Beijing’s actions means Indonesia must take action to strengthen its position, Rakhmat adds. This means using its position as chair of the ASEAN dialogue to promote regional co-operation, as well as boosting “its profile by increasing collaboration with the forces of friendly countries”.
But this comes with a downside, he adds.
“Increasing tensions in the Asia-Pacific region are likely to continue in the coming months, with Western countries trying to involve themselves in the South China Sea dispute to deter Chinese assertiveness.
“Countries in the region, including Indonesia, will need to prepare themselves to face this twin threat of China’s increasingly powerful military and the likelihood of them being dragged into potential tensions – or worse, unanticipated incidents at sea – between China and the United States and its allies.”